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Gardens: The luck of leaves

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Looking for a little luck in the coming year? Try catching a falling leaf!

According to my husband (and other sources of folklore) it’s lucky to catch a falling autumn leaf before it hits the ground — a month’s worth of luck for each leaf caught, in fact.

I’m not as adept at catching airborne leaves as my husband is, but I console myself in feeling very lucky to see the display that those leaves provide before they fall, whether that be through the windshield of a car, on a wooded trail or in our own yard.

And it just so happens that the amount and brilliance of fall leaf color is dependent on a bit of luck: the luck of weather conditions that is. If the previous summer and early fall have been particularly dry, the leaves of deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves in the winter) will likely not produce vivid fall colors and may turn brown instead of colorful before they fall. The intensity of fall color is greatest when fall weather patterns provide warm, sunny days and cool but not freezing nights.

The technical reasons behind fall color have less to do with luck and more to do with science — harken back to all those terms we learned in high school, such as photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process through which sunlight is used by plants to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen (for us to breathe) and sugars, which plants use for food during their spring and summer growing seasons. As days get shorter in the fall and there is less sunlight to fuel the food-making process, deciduous plants begin to shut down and stop photosynthesizing.

Then there is the role of chlorophyll (yep, another term from our high school science pasts), which gives leaves their green color. As the plants stop photosynthesizing, chlorophyll ebbs away and allows orange and yellow pigments that are naturally in the leaves to emerge. The reds and purples that some plants display in their fall leaves are actually caused by sugars trapped in leaves as photosynthesis stops, while the brown color in leaves is caused by wastes left behind at the end of photosynthesis.

Whew, now that the science lesson is out of the way, how about a little lesson in how to appreciate the artistry of fall colors? Alabama abounds with many opportunities to see fall color and, according to the Farmers’ Almanac, this year’s prime leaf peeping season in Alabama should be between Oct. 19 and Nov. 4. If you want to take the luck out of finding this year’s best fall leaf displays, the Alabama Tourism Department and Alabama State Parks Division provide interactive maps and leaf-peeping trail ideas at http://alabama.travel/trails/fall-color-trail.

But even if you can’t go on a leaf-peeping journey, you can create your own fall showplace by planting the right trees and shrubs — and this is a great time of year to do some of that planting and often to get some good deals on trees and shrubs.

Among the recommended plants for fall color in Alabama are the old standbys: dogwood, gingko, redbud and red, Japanese and sugar maples. But you can also consider other plant choices such as crape myrtle, sourwood and blueberry, to name a very few.


October Tips

        •  Apply compost to gardens and turn compost piles.
        •  Test soil and add amendments as needed.
        •  Dry and save seed from end-of-season flowers, vegetables and herbs.
        •  Take cuttings of tender perennials and begin rooting them.
        •  Clean and store empty pots, garden tools and equipment for the winter.
        •  Plant lettuces, spinach, turnips, radishes, onions and garlic.
        •  Plant a winter garden cover crop (ryegrass, clover, etc.) to protect and enrich soil.
        •  Keep mowing lawns until no sign of new growth is evident.
        •  Fill bird feeders and birdbaths to attract migrating and local birds.

 


JACKSON, KATIE Gardening 2013

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.